Six Ways to Give Better Feedback

As the great cultural critic and philosopher Fred Durst once said: “Now all the critics wanna hit it, to sh*tcan how we did it, just because they don’t get it.”

He was talking, I assume, about some disappointing feedback he’d received. Possibly for Results May Vary (“in short, Durst is making an arse of himself” said The Observer in its one-star review). And while Mr Durst was wrong about a great many things, he was right about how easy it is to criticise other people’s work. Crucially, how easy it is to criticise other people’s work badly.

Working in an agency, I have a great deal of sympathy for Fred. Having others critique our work is part of the job. But there’s a big difference between feedback that we can use to improve and feedback that’s confusing or just plain useless.

So when I was reminded of John Updike’s rules for constructive criticism a couple of weeks ago, I thought about how they could be applied to the agency feedback process. Because, while they were originally intended for book reviewers, I think there’s plenty of useful stuff in there for clients, agency folk and creative people alike…

  1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.
    In short: did the writer or creative do what you asked? Bear in mind that what you asked for and what you actually want are sometimes different things (this is why it’s so crucial to get the brief right, but that’s another blog topic for another time). If the work doesn’t meet the brief, fair enough, we can address where it falls short. But it’s unreasonable to criticise a piece of work for not doing something that wasn’t specified.
  2. Give [the author] enough direct quotation – at least one extended passage – of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.
    Updike’s intention here was that readers should be able to experience some of the author’s work first-hand, without mediation by the reviewer. I’m going to flip this around, however. As much as possible, feedback should come verbatim from the person giving it, whether it’s via email, a phone call, or tracked changes in a document. Hearing it second- (or worse, third-) hand just dilutes the clarity of the feedback.
  3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy precis.
    Saying the copy “needs to be punchier” isn’t very useful feedback. Give examples. Be specific. Be detailed. Highlight a sentence and explain why you think it isn’t punchy. Is the language used a bit stuffy? Are the sentences too long or complex? Answering these questions with examples helps a writer understand what you’re looking for.
  4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending.
    Not going to lie, this doesn’t relate to the agency feedback process at all. But I do hope to one day write a piece of B2B content so thrillingly plotted that people will not want to spoil its ending for others.
  5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s ouevre or elsewhere.
    Even if we haven’t hit the mark with the piece as a whole, there might be a part of it that works for you. Or we’ve done something before that’s closer to what you want. Whether it’s an example from a competitor or copy from a totally different industry, show us something that you think did a similar thing well. We’re not so precious as to think everything we do is perfect – a little guidance often helps.
  6. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind…Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. 
    There are many ways to apply this to the feedback process, but what I take from it is: try not to bring your preconceptions to the work. It’s easy to assume that content for your product or sector has to be written a certain way, that it must have a particular tone or form. That kind of thinking will kill truly original or brilliant work. Abandon your assumptions. Appreciate the work on its own terms.

To recap, here are those rules in a form you can print out and stick up on the wall:

  1. Judge the work by the brief
  2. Feedback should come straight from the person giving it
  3. Use examples from the work to illustrate your criticisms
  4. No idea
  5. Give examples of other successful work for comparison
  6. Abandon your assumptions about what the work should or should not be

Want us to do some work for you that you’ll now be able to constructively criticise? Get in touch!